Sheldon Hackney who served as president of Tulane University and the University of Pennsylvania, died Thursday at the age of 79, The Vineyard Gazette reported. Hackney died from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, widely known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Hackney was respected as a historian (he focused on the American South), and his presidencies were generally considered successful.
But the end of Hackney's Penn presidency saw him and the university become the focus of a national debate on free speech. A student had shouted from his dorm room for a group of students below to stop making noise and he had called them "water buffalo." The students below were minority students and the student who shouted faced a university hearing over alleged insensitivity. (The student who shouted "water buffalo" said that the words came from an Israeli phrase for loud, rude people and had nothing to do with race.) The case galvanized many who felt that colleges were going too far in their push to promote sensitivity and that such efforts were intruding on free speech rights.
Hackney left Penn in 1993 when President Clinton nominated him to become chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. While Hackney was confirmed for that post, his confirmation hearings featured extensive discussion of the "water buffalo" case, which drew more attention than his plans for the NEH. At the endowment, one of Hackney's major projects was to encourage public discussion of difficult issues through a program called "A National Conversation on American Pluralism and Identity."